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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Justifying the frame

Asia's participation during the Second World War is marked by incredible loss, politically, socially and culturally speaking. However, we often fail to understand, as Richard Bach said, that "what the caterpillar calls the end of the world the master calls a butterfly." The rapid westernization of the region, which the Great Chinese Wall couldn't counterpoint this time, provoked deep local reactions that are still proving to be fruitful. The West's damnation of dictatorship regimes and society's mistrust towards communism are leading China and its neighbours in an alternative direction of achieving progress and prosperity. And in such a period of crisis, Eastern culture returns to its rich roots to seek self-respect and a base for further development. In her book "South-Eastern Asia. Traditions and Contemporaneity" Hristina Mircheva talks about "the Asian way of thinking" of progress and prosperity:

A catalyst of these bold thoughts is the Asian way of thinking about the responsibility of every person, about the requirement of relying on your own strength, to serve the nation without expecting a reward, to believe in the rebirth of the Asian origin, to devote one's strength to this revival.

And this strong notion expresses itself in Asia's age-old nationalism, its realising the difference of European societies, its "self-dependence and independence."

This process of returning to the roots can clearly be seen in Eastern Asia's contemporary cinema. However, present cinema - looking into itself through contemplation - is an inheritor of another XXth century cinema, that of Yasujiro Ozu.

Since the similarities between Ozu's films and today's "contemplative cinema" have already been spotted, let me explore and try to justify my way of understanding Ozu's slowness, preliminary stating that this retardation today has evolved on a much larger scale.

Ozu's post-war contemplative style can be seen forming in his earlier custom-focused films, such as the later-remade 1934 A Story of Floating Weeds. Although here the purpose of the camera is to turn the viewer into a kind of stalker (a decision implied in Bruno Dumont's Flandres in a more distant and coldly transitioned way), certain moments hint towards observing, namely those post-action, empty-framed, after-the-content-curve seconds, which Girish spoke of, during which the viewer is left with a bare shot, deprived of human presence, confusedly wondering what to make of the inanimate setting.

During the 12th and 13th century Japan discovered and perfected a kind of garden that surrounded tea-spaces and comforted towards contemplation, self-observation and meditation. These gardens, constructed similarly to Buddhist monastries, were entered through a path which lead, along a corridor, to the small tea-room at the far end. While entering, visitors had to bend their head (due to the low door), which expressed their respect. The path to the room was considered a road of thinking. It seems to me that those after-the-content-curve moments in Ozu's film are, in fact, such little paths, though, in reverse orther. If a person has to purify and think before the tea ceremony, here one needs the event of the shot in order to comprehend it. The director occasionally provides such meditation paths, which are an actionless continuation of the action.

Another point, which applies to all of Ozu's films, is the low camera angle at the height of a sitting man. This is a position close to the one of a meditating Buddha - isolated from the world and devoted to self-observation, but also of a kneeing man, expressing admiration. Thus, the viewer is placed in a position which intuitively provokes contemplation as well as unprejudiced appreciation.

One thing that especially puzzled me was the recurrence of still, inanimate pots-full shots. The same is present in Eric Khoo's 2005 Be With Me, although there the dramaturgian validity is due to a different cause, possibly the suggestion of deafness, stillness, muteness. Then, a Japanese garden style gave me an answer. "Shinden" or "rock arden", or "zen garden" is an artistic composition of a number of rocks. It plays with the conceptions of beauty and the way we experience the three dimensions. Ozu's household compositions very much resemble their zen-ness and minimalism in searching a simplicity of forms and organising space.

During the Tang dynasty (and later the Song dynasty, 10-13 c.) between 7-10 century, the Chinese landscape painting was developed and mastered as well as transfered in Japan and South Korea. It carried the idea of nature being a vastness of space which the human eye can embrace in only one look. Thus was initiated a tradition of interpreting Chinese landscapes (mountains and rivers, mainly) into wide or long silk canvases of succeeding plans. When a mountain chain had to be drawn, the artist unfolded the silk roll horisontally; while when the landscape consisted of high sharp peaks, he unfolded it vertically in order to spread the image into a number of plans one on top of the other. The same technique was later adopted by Japanese masters and can be detected in Ozu's organisation of the frame.

The last shot, on the other hand, forwards to Angelopoulos's The Weeping Meadow.

The sky had to compulsory be present in the painting.

Three times can Ozu's camera be seen moving and it is done linearly. Every time it tries to envelop a large group of people/objects. Two of these three times it spreads aside an audience - too big to detailedly be grasped as a whole. The last time it slides along a sequence of organised pots - gradually separating groups of structured "zen compositions."

I perceive this directorial decision as a reference to the imposibility of encompassing the immensity of the landscape painting. It was drawn in such detail and accuracy of the lines that one had to got close in order to appreciate them. Thus, however, one couldn't see the whole, but could only read it - image by image. I believe Ozu applied this technique in order to create a similar effect: add an emphasis on the beauty of the single detail and how it flows rhythmically into the whole entity.


Marina said...

I realise, this isn't directly linked to the topic, but later I'll try to trace this onwards in the present.

Ozu's post-war period is more interesting and it comes next, so the time may not be enough for finishing this at contemporary "contemplative cinema" directors. But if this subject could be still discussed after January ...?

HarryTuttle said...

This is a great post Marina, and I'm glad you share this research here. Ozu is a monument of cinema history, one of a kind, so it's hard to compare his work to today's auteurs. The blogathon ends with January, but the blog will stay around, so you're welcome to come back.

What I like about the Zen analogy for CC is the sense of harmony prevailling over instant beauty. A zen garden is only stones and white walls, it would look dull and boring anywhere else. But since the internal harmony directing the arrangement of the elements together proves a perfect equilibrium it puts the mind at ease, without the need for flashy flowers, scents or profusion. We find the same attitude in CC, as you note.
We have to empty our minds, to forget about projecting meanings onto images like Hollywood conditionned us to, then only can we appreciate the harmony of the elements isolated in the shots, their subtle combination, and the meditative lapse allowing to contemplate the absence, the stillness, the silence.
The zen garden can provide more than one allegory in the description of CC. The uniformity, regularity of the raked gravel, constituting a neutral background (like the CC soundtrack, and the stationary shots). The unicity, particularity of the rocks (like non-actors) chosen in the composition. These are positionned in relation to other shapes in a certain manner to provoke an aesthetical confrontation, through contrast, accumulation or isolation. But not in a spectacular way, like in mainstream movies where the clashing caricature is researched for obvious effect. Zen cultivates humility in an apparently unsignificant composition, regulated by quiet organising forces, be it randomness of Nature or harmony of the artist.